This Ain’t Rock and Roll. This is…

…Ragtime. On Saturday morning I take the exam for a course I’ve been slogging through, on Folk Music in the British Isles. Twas interesting, I learned things, but found it ultimately irritating to study a music without many actual examples. So when the option came up near the end of the course to study Ragtime, of which there are some examples, I took it. I now know more about ragtime than I ever expected to. I don’t love it, but it’s interesting history about which I am glad to know. It happened right just before jazz started, around the beginning of the previous century, and sounded like this:

Maple Leaf Rag.

That track may sound familiar – it’s among the most famous songs from the era, which spanned a couple of decades between the 1890s and the 19teens. Ragtime existed during the time of the first gramophones, but was mostly recorded on piano rolls, for player pianos, which is neat. The track above is a recording from one of these, recorded by its composer Scott Joplin, who was the James Brown of ragtime.

Ragtime went through a remarkably familiar pattern in American pop. It was created by black Americans (who were doing their take on the Marches that were popular at the time) and then became popular among white Americans. It was reviled during its time by conservatives as low-class, immoral and youth-corrupting, which is hilarious and should be kept in mind next time a new music is given a knee-jerk kick. From our perspective it sounds pretty stiff, but in 1895 its rhythm was outrageous to white people – that’s crazy jungle music! – which should sound familiar if you’ve checked out early rock and roll.

Eventually, its popularity among white people caused it to become massively commercialized, watered down, and when it was all done, it was essentially a novelty music. Black Americans had of course gone off and invented Jazz. So no biggee.

Ragtime had a brief resurgence in the 1970s when the film The Sting featured it.

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